An art exhibit minus the art evokes Holocaust loss

International Herald Tribune 31 May 2008

Worldwide, experts say, between 250,000 and 600,000 pieces of art looted by the Nazis are still held by museums, governments and private collectors. Only a tiny fraction have been returned to the original owners or their heirs.

The lack of color in the paintings in the exhibit is not for nostalgic effect. The photographs taken at the 1937 auction, the only record Stern's estate has of the paintings, were in black and white. Curators still don't know what most of the art would look like in color.

Only a single painting is displayed as color reproduction: Emile C.H. Vernet-Lecomte's "Aimée, A Young Egyptian." It was the first of the handful of paintings to be discovered and returned to the Stern estate.

The Max Stern Art Restitution Project, which sponsored the "Auktion 392" exhibit, is trying to recover Stern's collection, but the hardest part is simply tracking down the paintings. "Once they're sold to a private individual, they just sink back into the mud," Mackenzie said.

One of the three recovered paintings from the 1937 auction, Nicolas Neufchatel's "Portrait of Jan van Eversdyck," was discovered hanging on the wall of a Jewish foundation in Spain. The heads of the foundation had no knowledge of their painting's murky past.

Stern paintings may be less likely to be recovered because they are not from headline-making artists. The paintings auctioned off were not by the great masters.

"Nobody's looking out for them," MacKenzie said.

She hopes the exhibit might change that.

Late last year, a U.S. court ruled that an oil painting in Stern's collection, Franz Xaver Winterhalter's "Girl from the Sabine Mountains," should be returned to Stern's estate.

The estate found the Winterhalter painting after Maria-Luise Bissonnette took it to a Rhode Island auction house in 2005. Bissonnette's father was a low-ranking Nazi official when he bought the painting at the 1937 auction.

Lawyers for the Stern estate sued for its return, and the case established "forced sales" by the Nazis, such as the one at Galerie Stern, as equivalent to theft or looting, MacKenzie said. Bissonette is appealing the court's decision.

The case is one of several legal battles in recent years over artworks that changed hands in the Nazi era.

Associated Press Jerusalem: An art gallery at Hebrew University is mounting an unusual art exhibit — without original art.

"Auktion 392-Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Düsseldorf," features reproductions of the paintings that Germany's Nazi government forced art dealer Max Stern to auction off in 1937 because he was Jewish.

Curators had no choice but to use reproductions: Of the 227 paintings Stern was forced to sell, only 3 have been recovered.

For the exhibit, curators relied on photographs taken at the 1937 auction to make full-size sepia-toned copies of 26 of the paintings sold. The show opens Sunday at the Stern Art Gallery in Jerusalem, which is named after the art dealer

"It's one way of saying, 'We want these back,'" said Dr. Catherine MacKenzie of Concordia University, who researched the exhibit and curated the first show in Montreal.

In 2006, five paintings by Gustav Klimt were handed over to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, niece of a Viennese art patron. Altmann had waged a seven-year fight for their return.

Another tangle involved a Vincent van Gogh painting purchased by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960s. Late last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider a claim brought by descendants of a former owner of the painting, a Jewish woman who had fled Germany in 1939.

Max Stern escaped to Canada shortly after the auction, where, after the war, he became a successful art dealer in Montreal.

Stern left his estate to McGill and Concordia universities in Montreal and Hebrew University. The exhibit was mounted at each school as well as in galleries in New York, London and Liverpool.

"It's very, very different from the way they did it in Montreal and it works so well," said MacKenzie of the ornately decorated gallery in Jerusalem, meant to evoke Stern's original showroom. "It's so nice that the best iteration is here."

The curator of the Hebrew University's galleries, Ahuva Passow-Whitman, said the exhibit is a chance to remember the Holocaust through one man's experience.

"The truth is the truth," Passow-Whitman said. "Like everything else about the Holocaust, it has to be told again and again and again, and there is no end to it."
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